Plenty of characters were carted off to Boot Hill during the 20-season run of “Gunsmoke.”
The TV series also sent Gilligan to the graveyard.
An explanation is forthcoming, but let’s go ahead and establish the reason for this story.
“Gunsmoke,” the gold standard for television Westerns and one of the most revered series in TV history regardless of genre, is 65. Or at least the TV version is 65. “Gunsmoke” was a successful radio program before the Sept. 10, 1955, debut of the TV series.
To commemorate the anniversary, you might consider a trip to Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, which reopened May 18 following a COVID-19 shutdown.
Six “Gunsmoke” cast members — James Arness, Amanda Blake, Ken Curtis, Milburn Stone, Buck Taylor and Dennis Weaver — are in the museum’s Hall of Great Western Performers. The museum has more than 40 art objects and artifacts directly related to “Gunsmoke,” including portraits and busts of cast members, costumes worn by Arness and Blake, Stone’s “actor” chair, Curtis’ saddle, the original set design for the TV version of Dodge City, 12 scripts, cast photographs and a mortar, pestle and Winchester carbine used by Stone in the series.
“Gunsmoke” lasted 635 episodes and, until surpassed by “Law & Order: SVU,” was the longest-running, live-action, scripted prime-time series in U.S. history. The end arrived in 1975, but it could have come sooner.
After 12 seasons, some assumed “Gunsmoke” had run its course. It was reported in February 1967 that the series was being canceled. Michael Dann, a CBS executive, removed the show from the network’s fall schedule. An end-of-season cast party turned into a wrap party for the series, and it was held, of course, at the Long Branch Saloon.
Alan Hale Jr., who had guest-starred in “Gunsmoke” episodes and is best known for playing Skipper on “Gilligan’s Island,” visited “Gunsmoke” story consultant Paul Savage and offered words of consolation: “I think it’s horrible. It’s wrong. If any show should’ve been canceled, it’s that turkey we’re doing.” (Hale was referencing “Gilligan’s Island.”)
“Gunsmoke” got a stay of execution from William S. Paley. CBS’ chairman of the board, Paley had been on vacation when the decision was made to pull the plug on the series. Paley demanded that “Gunsmoke” be placed back on the fall schedule. The series was moved to a new night (Monday) and, to make room for the hourlong drama, two 30-minute comedies had to be sacrificed. One of them was “Gilligan’s Island.” What did Hale say afterward?
The answer can be found in the pages of “Gunsmoke: An American Institution.” The book was originally published in 2005 to commemorate the series’ 50th anniversary, but a special 65th anniversary edition is available this year through Story Monsters LLC. The updated version, which includes a summary of every episode, features fresh material from author and “Gunsmoke” historian Ben Costello. To learn more about the book or the author, visit gunsmokebook.com.
In honor of the anniversary and the continuing presence of “Gunsmoke” (reruns air on MeTV and INSP; episodes are available on CBS All Access), here are 10 things you might find interesting in the book.
1. John Wayne introduced “Gunsmoke” to the world. He appeared in a segment prior to the premiere and said, “It’s the best thing of its kind to come along, and I hope you’ll agree with me.” Wayne, who said he wished he was in “Gunsmoke,” told viewers there was only one man for the job and that’s James Arness. “He’s a young fella and may be new to some of you, but I’ve worked with him and like him and I predict he’ll be a big star. So you might as well get used to him, like you’ve had to get used to me. And now I’m proud to present my friend James Arness in ‘Gunsmoke.’”
2. William Conrad voiced Matt Dillon in the “Gunsmoke” radio series and was among actors who tried out for the TV role. Burt Reynolds, who played Quint Asper in the series, told the author he saw screen tests for the Matt Dillon role. Reynolds said Robert Stack, Raymond Burr, Hugh O’Brian and others tested for the part. Reynolds said Conrad had a magnificent voice. “Everything was going along perfect and then he stood up, and the chair stuck to his (butt). He took about four steps with it stuck there, and that wasn’t going to work for Matt Dillon.”
3. “Gunsmoke” was groundbreaking as an “adult” Western series. What does that mean exactly? Weaver explained in an interview with the author: “Before ‘Gunsmoke,’ of course, we had Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and the singing cowboy. Those stories weren’t based on real relationships or stories that really dealt with problems of real people and real interesting characters.”
Other Westerns? Savage said there was never a speck of dirt on anyone in “Bonanza.” He said people in the show were “Technicolor beautiful.”
4. Weaver played Chester Goode, a sidekick with a stiff-legged limp. Viewers wondered (and wagered) if the limp was a real-life affliction. It wasn’t. He said he got many sympathetic letters. A former track and field athlete at the University of Oklahoma, Weaver is Oklahoma’s biggest connection to “Gunsmoke.” The Joplin native left the series after nine seasons because he had ambitions other than career sidekick. He later starred in “McCloud,” which aired from 1970-1977 on NBC.
5. Curtis, who played Festus Haggin, replaced Weaver in the cast. Curtis was married to the daughter of legendary movie director John Ford and, according to the book, the seeds for the Festus character were planted when Curtis used a unique dialect when playing clean-shaven singing cowboy Charlie McCorry in the Ford film “The Searchers.”
6. Blake, who played saloon keeper Miss Kitty, was fired before the final season. Details were kept hush-hush to fend off public outrage. Fran Ryan played Miss Hannah at the Long Branch during the farewell season of “Gunsmoke.”
7. The character-driven stories on “Gunsmoke” provided juicy roles for guest stars. Which notable actors were guest stars? It might be easier to list actors who never guest-starred.
Sample of guest stars: Bette Davis, Harrison Ford, Barbara Eden, Charles Bronson, Gary Busey, Jack Lord, Ricardo Montalban, Adam West, Loretta Swit, Richard Dreyfuss, Angie Dickinson, Ron Howard, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan and DeForest Kelley. Among repeaters were Victor French (18 episodes), Jack Elam (15), Denver Pyle (14), Harry Carey Jr. (12), Strother Martin (11), Claude Akins (10) and Warren Oates (10).
8. Lyrics for the “Gunsmoke” theme song were written and recorded. They were never part of the intro or closing segments.
9. Remember Thad? Roger Ewing joined the cast as Deputy Marshal Thad Greenwood in 1965, but he was not retained after “Gunsmoke” was canceled and un-canceled in 1967. Just like Quint and Chester, Thad vanished without explanation. Buck Taylor (as Newly O’Brien) became fresh blood in season 13 following Thad’s departure. Taylor turned own the Dano role on “Hawaii Five-0” before heading to Dodge City.
10. Here’s a tone-setter: The hero was nearly shot to death in the first episode of “Gunsmoke.” The producer chose to air that episode (“Matt Gets It”) first instead of the pilot. Spoiler alert. Matt Dillon survived to be in 634 additional episodes.
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